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“Paul is Dead” – Great moments in backmasking history

Forty-seven years ago today, WKNR Disc Jockey Russ Gibb took a call from a listener who presented mounting “evidence” that the Beatles’ Paul McCartney was dead, citing clues hidden in the song “Revolution 9.” This rumor had already cropped up sporadically over the previous two years, in the wake of a rumored traffic accident McCartney had after leaving the studio due to a heated argument. Gibb’s on-air discussion of recently discovered secret messages in the 1968 record The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album), however, set the rumor mill into action in a way that caused ripples throughout the music industry.

The “evidence” in question included two accusations of backmasking, a technique in which reversed audio is mixed in with the regular audio to hide messages in songs. First, there was the caller’s belief that if you reverse the section of “Revolution 9” in which the phrase “number nine” continuously repeats, then the voice says “turn me on, dead man.”

Gibb then added his own discovery to the mix, claiming that, when similarly reversed, John Lennon’s mumbling at the end of “I’m So Tired” (actually: “Monsieur, monsieur, monsieur, how about another one?”) revealed the message, “Paul is a dead man. Miss him, miss him, miss him.”

Claims were made that Lennon ended “Strawberry Fields Forever” with “I buried Paul” (actually: “cranberry sauce”), and the barefoot Paul funeral-procession interpretation of the cover art for the recently released Abbey Road set the rumor mill into high gear. Some fans even pointed to the yellow flower wreath on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the shape of McCartney’s preferred Hofner bass as further evidence of Paul’s demise. All these and more fed the conspiracy theories that Paul was dead and had been replaced by a look-alike.

While the allegation that McCartney’s death had been covered up was easily dismissed by now-overworked Beatles Press Officer Derek Taylor, the notion that messages could be hidden in music — possibly influencing the listener — frightened a lot of people. In fact, fear of subliminal messaging began in the 1950s, when a New Jersey advertiser name James Vicary attributed a rise in concession sales to splicing messages into film reels. It wasn’t long before alarmists such as Gary Greenwald began a witch hunt for evil messages they found distasteful, and within five years, wild accusations were leveled at bands including Led Zeppelin, Electric Light Orchestra, Styx, and Queen.

While virtually all accusations of backmasking were completely unfounded, and the strange message in “Revolution 9” was almost certainly unintentional, the Beatles had been deliberately using experimental techniques such as reverse instrumentation for years before 1968’s The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album), with “I’m Only Sleeping” (Revolver, 1966) introducing the unique sound of a reversed guitar solo played by George Harrison. This effect became a mainstay of psychedelic rock, one of the best examples being Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” which features reversed guitar and drums. The effect even found its way onto more mainstream cuts like the backwards guitar lead in Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Pre-Road Downs.”

While reverse recording was often an arduous, time-consuming process back in the days of electromagnetic tape, modern DAW software makes achieving this classic effect extremely simple. While sorting out the notes still requires the same process of writing the part and reversing the order, flipping the audio usually takes no more than a few mouse clicks. And thanks to modern timing adjustment tools, getting everything to line up is a breeze. Check out this article about pedals that will allow you to accomplish reverse phrase looping at the touch of a switch.

If you’re looking for a new way to add classic effects to your next track, why not try a bit of reverse instrumentation? And if you have any questions about how to pull it off, just give Sweetwater a call.

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